Κυριακή, 29 Μαρτίου 2009

Project Romanticism

Adam Mickiewicz

(1798 – 1855)


or the Last Foray in Lithuania: a History of the Nobility

in the Years 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse

Translated from Polish by Leonard Kress



The last old Polish banquet – the centerpiece – an explanation of its figures –

transformations – Dombrowski’s gifts – more about the Penknife – Kniaziewicz

receives a gift – Tadeusz’ first official act after receiving his inheritance –

Gervazy’s remarks – concert of concerts – Polonaise – Let us love one another!

A thundering crash—the great door opened;

the Seneschal entered, wearing a hat,

his head held high. Yet he did not extent

greeting, and he failed to take the spot that

he usually claimed: for today he appeared

in new character—Marshall of the Court,

and using his official staff, he steered

the guests, starting with those of great import,

directly to the places he assigned,

just like a master of ceremonies.

He circled and he led, his path designed

to accommodate the authorities

first—so the Wojewoda’s Official

took the most prominent spot a velvet chair

with ivory arms, cushions lush and full,

to his left, Kniaziewicz, Pac, Malochowski,

and the handsome wife of the high Official.

Farther back sat officers and ladies,

young and old, arranged by the Seneschal

in alternating pairs, trying to please.

Among this group landowners were include,

placed where order and decorum suited.

Meanwhile, the Judge had politely withdrawn

from the banquet, and by the road outside,

was talking to some peasants on the lawn.

He led them to a table set beside

the garden, seating himself at one end,

placing the parish priest at the other.

Tadeusz and Zosia did not intend

to sit and feast; instead they rushed to gather

food and drink, eating as they walked, to serve

the seated peasants, for custom bespoke

that new lords and ladies of the manor observe

this rule: First you must serve the common folk.

Inside the guests who waited for their food

were marveling at the great centerpiece,

whose precious metal and workmanship stood

at equal level, value never to decrease.

According to legend, Prince Radziwill

The Orphan had to order it from the Venice

court, to be adorned in the Polish style.

The centerpiece had later disappeared

back when the Swedes invaded the nation,

yet it mysteriously reappeared

in this country gentleman’s mansion.

And now it had been polished for the meal;

placed on the table—huge as a coach wheel.

The centerpiece was completely coated

from rim to rim with sugar and meringue,

as though a fake winter landscape floated

in mid-air. A dark forest was growing

in the center, groves of rich confection;

on either side were different homes and huts,

a peasant village, and at close inspection,

a settlement which a manor abuts.

They were not covered with hoarfrost or ice,

but sugar spun into a snowy froth.

Tiny porcelain figures further entice

the eye, which, by now, is totally loath

to look away; for all these figures wear

Polish costumes—and their poses depict

some great event. They were made with such care;

you’d think that they might cry if they were pricked.

The guests were curious—what do they show?

The Seneschal rose, starting to explain;

he spoke and the vodka began to flow:

“With your permission, honored gentlemen

and ladies, the countless figures you see

depict the history of the Polish

District Assemblies—voting, victory,

triumph, dispute. So let me explain this,

for I have guessed the meaning of this scene.”

“There, on the right, countless nobles gather

to feast, before the Diet will convene;

although the banquet is prepared, they’d rather

stand in groups, hold counsel, deliberate—

a man right in the center of each pack,

while those around him listen and debate;

their eyes were open wide, jaws hanging slack.

An arm is waving in the air—something

new is expounded by an orator;

see how his finger explicates, marking

on his palm. Each orator is speaking for

his own candidate, and his impression

can be read auditors’ expression.”

“There, in another group, a noble stands,

hand thrust into his belt, as urgently,

he listens to the orator’s demands.

another cups his ear and silently

twirls his long mustache, taking in the speech,

storing it deep in memory for now.

The orator is pleased that his words reach

receptive ears—he has converts. To show

he’s sure, he pats the pockets of his coat,

for inside them he seems to have their vote.”

“Another group, and something else takes place;

the speaker grabs his listener by the belt.

They pull away and each one turns his face;

one bristles with the anger that he felt;

he shakes his fist to halt the speaker’s tongue;

apparently, the praises he believes

were ones that for another candidate were sung.

And so this man, dropping his forehead, heaves

his body like a bull at the speaker,

who tries to seize him by the horn.

And since, of course, one of them is weaker,

swords are drawn, while others flee in alarm.”

“Another gentleman, off to the side,

tries to remain neutral, but vacillates.

Then, closing his eyes, he lets fate decide

his vote: he lets his fingers halt debates;

if his thumbs meet, he’ll vote affirmative,

but if they miss, he’ll cast a negative.”

“Behind that scene, a convent dining hall

has been transformed by noblemen to hold

a District Assembly. After roll call,

the old men sit on benches, while the bold

young nobles, standing, gaze over their heads,

curious to see the District Marshall,

who raises up an urn and then proceeds

to empty the balls. When he’s counted all,

the apparitors raise their arms at once;

the newly elected names they announce.”

“And yet, one noble clearly disagrees:

he’s stuck his head out the window and stares

with looks so bold and insolent, he’d seize

the entire halls just to give some scares.

Who couldn’t guess that man shouts ‘Veto!”

See how his boastful challenge stirs the crowd

outside. See them rush to the door and go,

sabers drawn, to the kitchen. Yes, a loud

and bloody battle will break out—but no!

Pay close attention—in the corridor

a priest dressed in chasuble advances.

He brings the host and raises it, this prior,

led by a boy in surplice, who distances

the men by ringing a bell with great zeal.

And once they see this man of God, they sheath

their swords and quickly cross themselves and kneel.

And wherever the old priest turns, beneath

his upraised arms, the clinking weapons cease;

for all is calm and all returns to peace.”

“Too bad you younger men can not recall

just how it was among our turbulent

sovereign nobles. Though arms were held by all,

when true faith flourished, we ruled by consent.

Laws were respected and no need for police;

liberty grew with order, and glory

from abundance--for those were our decrees.

in other lands, I’ve heard a different story:

the government maintains soldier and gendarme,

constable and police; but it takes the sword

to guarantee one from another’s harm;

there is no liberty; please take my word.”

The Chamberlain tapped his tobacco case.

“Pan Seneschal,” he said, “could you postpone

until later your history of this place?

We hear, and yet our stomachs growl and groan;

don’t take offence—we’d like to eat quite soon.”

At this the Seneschal laid down his staff.

“Your excellency,” he said, “one scene remains

to be explained, then you can eat and laugh.

The maker of this centerpiece took pains

to represent the Diet’s history.

Right here the new Marshall is carried out

by his followers, and to his glory,

the nobles toss their hats up and they shout,

‘Vivat!’ Yet the outvoted candidate

lingers alone; upon his gloomy brow

his cap pulled down. Nearby, his wife, in wait

has guessed the outcome. Now she too will show

signs of defeat, thinking of the honor

she might receive, now lost for three more years.

Luckily the maid is almost upon her,

for she’s about to faint or burst in tears.”

Finally, the Seneschal gave them signal

that he’d concluded his lengthy accounts;

servants entered in pairs; their trays were full

of food: first soup was served in great amounts—

beet soup known as royal and rich clear broth

prepared with skill as in old Polish times.

Into this broth, the Seneschal throws both

tiny pearls and a golden coin, which chimes

against the pot. Such broth, it’s often said,

fortifies the health, purifies the blood.

And yet what words could possibly evoke

delicious tastes, no longer known or served:

arkus, kontuz, blemas: the first egg yoke

mixed with sweet curds and whey; then veal, reserved

from birth for sausage, within a chicken broth;

the last, a rich and sweet almond aspic.

Then the main courses came: cod stuffed with both

civets and musk; and on the side were thick

caramels, dried plums, pinenuts, and creams.

But the fish were the most extraordinary—

salmon from Carpathian Mountain streams,

sturgeon, caviar from Venice and Turkey;

pike and pickerel, almost a yard long;

capon carp and noble carp an flounder.

Last, they brought a dish, aroma strong;

a masterpiece, an uncut fish, rounder

and longer than most. Only the head was fried;

the center had been baked, and the broad tail

was a ragout, with sauces on the side.

The guests, little concerned about this detail,

don’t care about this culinary puzzle;

they eat like soldiers in a castle stormed;

abundant Hungarian wine they guzzle.

Meanwhile, the centerpiece had been transformed.

Stripped of its snow, it turned to shades of green,

as the light froth of ice began to thaw,

revealing a base heretofore unseen.

And so, a new season the guests now saw,

sparkling with green, a multi-colored spring.

The grains come forth, as though with yeast they grow;

saffron wheat and gilded corn now mixing

with rye, in silver leaves and shiny dew;

and buckwheat chocolate was manufactured,

and apples and pears, blooming in an orchard.

The gifts of summer do not last for long;

in vain they beg the Seneschal to halt

the change—for they would like him to prolong

the sun. But it is spinning through the vault

of heaven, as the seasons change. Already,

the grain is painted with gold, and the heat

inside causes a thaw that is steady.

Grass turns yellow to show summer’s retreat,

and crimson leaves slowly begin to fall,

as though a wind had stripped the leaves all bare:

once adorned, they now stand naked and tall—

cinnamon sticks and twigs, placed with such care,

to simulate pine groves in such a way

that needles could be made from caraway.

The guests who had been drinking cups of wine

tore off the branches, stumps, and roots to chew

as snacks. The Seneschal, proud of his fine

centerpiece, circled it to get a better view.

General Dombrowski feigned astonishment:

“May I ask if these are Chinese shadows,

or has Pinetti the Conjurer been sent

from Italy with his black magic shows?

Are such displays so commonplace these days

in Lithuania? These customs leave me awed.

tell me—I’m unfamiliar with your ways,

you know I’ve spent all of my life abroad.”

The Seneschal replied and bowed to this:

“No, Pan General, this is no godless art,

but a clear reminder of the glorious

banquets, which were such a necessary part

of life among our magnates, when Poland

was blessed by God with happiness and might.

All that I’ve done, I hope you understand,

I’ve read about in books. You are quite right

to act astonished; such ancient custom,

alas, has all but vanished from our land.

These days new fashions spring upon us from

God knows where. Young men say they cannot stand

such vast expense; grudgingly serving drink and food;

they’re stingy with this fine Hungarian wine;

they would prefer to serve something that’s rude

and devilish—adulterated champagne

from Moscow. Then, following their meager dinner,

they’ll lose so much at cards, that the winner

a hundred gentlemen could entertain.

And yet, I feel I must be very frank

and tell how even our most honored guest

(I truly hope he won’t think me a crank)

scoffed at me when I reached into the chest

to get this masterpiece. Antiquated,

he called it, a tiresome contrivance,

better left for children. And he related

how he thought it unfit, at variance

with such a gathering of distinguished men.

And Judge, even you said they’d all be bored.

But after all, it is my own opinion,

having observed our guests lack of discord

and great astonishment—this centerpiece

was well worth it. Besides, when again

will we have so many dignitaries?

You see, Pan General, there’s much to gain

in a banquet, by learning this fine art;

for when you entertain foreign monarchs—

yes, even Napoleon Bonaparte—

let me conclude my talk with these remarks.”

A murmur of voices was heard outside

shouting, “Long live Maciek the Steeplecock!”

The crowd pushed through the door by Maciek’s side;

then th Judge then took his guest with an arm-lock,

and happily led him to his special place

among the other honored guests. He said,

“Maciek, only a bad neighbor would fail to grace

our dinner table. “It’s almost time for bed;

“I try to eat early,” Maciek replied,

I came only out of curiosity,

not hunger. Even if I really tried,

I couldn’t stay away—I had to see.”

He overturned his plate to show the room

he would not eat, and silenced into gloom.

“Pan Dobrznski,” General Dombrowski

said to him, “Are you the famous swordsman

from the time of Kosciuszko, the very

Maciek know for his Switch? But this I can

not understand, you are healthy and spry,

after so many years—look how I’ve aged.

Kniaziewicz, too, has grayed and soon will die,

but you could hold your own if war were waged

today; you could compete with younger men;

your Switch still blooms! I’ve heard you have a thrashing

to the Moscovites. Where are your brethren?

I’d love to see those pocketknives slashing,

those razors shaving, those Lithuanian

relics, the last of their kind, so dashing.”

“General,” replied the Judge, “they all fled

after the victory. Refuge they sought

in the Warsaw Kingdom. They are not dead;

I’m sure they joined the Legions where they fought.”

“It’s true,” a young squadron chief interrupted,

“One of my men, a scarecrow with a mustache,

was a cavalry major who disrupted

so many enemy camps with his lash.

This Dobryznski calls himself The Baptist;

Mazovians call him The Lithuanian

Bear. But if the General insists,

I’ll order my sergeant to bring him in.

“More of his clan,” a lieutenant added,

“I’ve seen a soldier who is called The Razor,

and one who hauls a blunderbuss, who’s led

a band of grenadiers, one a chasseur.”

“But what about their chief?” the General

questioned. “I want to know about this Penknife,

whose miraculous deeds the Seneschal

has extolled, whose deeds seem larger than life.”

“This Penknife,” the Seneschal responded,

is not exile, though he was in fear

that by an inquiry he would be hounded.

The poor devil, all winter long was near

enough, hiding himself in nearby forests.

Now he’s returned, for in these times of war,

we need just such a knight who’s face all tests;

though it’s a shame his youth we can’t restore.

But here he is….” The Seneschal pointed

into the vestibule, where villagers

and servants were huddling in a disjointed

mass. Above their heads, one bald head towered,

shining like the full moon. Three times, at least,

it emerged and once more it disappeared

into a cloud of heads, as towards the feast

he advanced and bowed to the nobles’ cheers.

“Most excellent Hetman of the Crown, or is

it General, whichever is correct,

I am the Warden Rembajlo, and this

is my Penknife—you’ve heard of its effect.

It’s not the handle, not the inscription;

its fame stems from the temper of its blade.

You have already heard the description

of its deeds, and praise for the hand that made

it work. My service is long and faithful;

not just my homeland but Horeszkos’ too,

a clan whose virtues all nobles extol.

Milord, I do not think a scribe an do

with figures and pens to keep his books exact

what I, with my Penknife, can accomplish—

it would tax his powers to add and subtract,

for many heads I’ve lopped off with a swish;

and yet, my sword has not a single notch;

no murderous deed has ever tarnished it.

For oftentimes I would prefer to watch

from a safe distance, preferring to hit

only in warfare or else in a duel.

Only one time an unarmed man did fall

beneath my blade, and he was just a fool,

for whom Our Lord will grant rest eternal.

His death, my witnesses must surely know

was just—it was Pro Publico Bono.”

“Show us,” replied the laughing General,

“this famed Penkife, this executioner’s

delight.” He struggled to raise it with all

his strength, then passed it on to the others.

In turn they gripped the hilt; only a few

could raise it up. Perhaps the famed Dembinski

could handily brandish it, with this two

powerful arms—this the men could agree,

but he was away, and of those present,

only the squadron chief Derwinski

and Rozycki, the platton lieutenant

managed to swing this pole from iron cast,

from hand to hand, in turn, as it was passed.

But General Kniaziewicz, the tallest,

turned out to be the strongest of the group,

seizing the sword as if it were the smallest

rapier, and swinging it with a great swoop.

He brandished the blade, which flashed like lightning,

calling to mind old Polish fencing moves:

cross stroke, mill, the crooked slash, the frightening

downward blow, the stolen slash (a jab that proves

the fencing master), attitudes of tierce

and counterpoint, which is the former in reverse.

While he displayed his fencing skills to all,

Rembajlo the Warden embraced his knees,

and at each turn of sword, he gave a wail.

“General, I see that you’ve learned Pulaski’s

thrust, that you fought with the Confederates.

There is Dzierzanowski’s attack, and there

is Sawa’s move; you must have learned these hits

from Maciek Dobrzynski’s old hand, but where

did you learn that other? And not boast,

but that slashing stroke is my own invention,

known in Rembajlo village by a host

of Rembajlos only. When they mention

that move, they speak of it as Milord’s Thrust.

Who showed that grip to you? I feel at peace

knowing such skill is held by one I trust.

For many years, my haunting fears increased,

after my death, my sword might rust away—

but now it will not rust! Please, General,

tell our youth not to use this thin epee,

this German billiard cue, fit for a girl.

It makes me sad to see one on a belt.

I lay my Penknife at your feet—my most

dear possession, for which I’ve always felt

so much. I never had a wife to boast

about, nor children; yet this very sword

was my wife and child, the one who kept

me company, stirring when I stirred,

always by my side, whenever I slept.

When I grew old it hung upon the wall

like the Jews’ Commandments. I planned to store it

with me in the grave—that thought I recall,

now that I’ve found a new owner for it.”

The General, smiling, was clearly moved.

“Comrade,” he said, “if you would yield to me

your wife and child, the only things you loved,

you’d be a childless and solitary

widower—what sort of compensation

could I provide to sweeten your old age?”

“Am I Cebulski?” he cried with indignation,

“who gambled away his wife, played cribbage

with Moscovites? We have all heard that song.

It brings me joy to know my sword will shine

before the world, held by a hand so strong.

Remember, General, lengthen the line

of your strap, for the blade is very long;

and always when you slash, make your attack

cutting from the left ear, using both hands;

then cut straight from the head down to the stomach.”

The General, taking the sword, commands

his servants to place it in a wagon,

for it is much too long for him to wear.

And what became of it has long been one

of the great mysteries. No doubt you’d hear

many versions, repeated every year.

Dombrowski turned to Maciek: “Why are you

so displeased? Its seems that our arrival

has made you sour. What does your heart do,

if not skip a beat, when you see, in full

regalia, the gold and silver eagle?

When the trumpets blast Kosciuszko’s reveille?

Maciek, I thought the sight of such regal

forces might stir you, but if you can’t be

urged to draw your sword or mount your horse,

at least you’ll drink and join in with your friend

to toast Napoleon’s health, and, of course,

the hope that Poland’s slavery will end.”

“Hah!” said Maciek. “I see what’s happening.

But don’t you know, two eagles will not nest

together; it seems that you have been riding,

Hetman, a horse with piebald back and chest.

The Emperor’s a hero; we expend

much talk of this subject. And both Pulaskis

often said, when others would defend

DuMorouier the French agent and his decrees,

that Poland was in need of a hero

who was Polish—not French, not Italian,

a true Piast—Jan, Jozef, Maciek, or so….

And the army! For the Polish nation?

Fusileers, Grenadiers, and Sappers!

There are more German titles in this group

than national. There might as well be Tartars

or Turks—who could understand such a troop?

Or Schismatics, whose faith in God is lacking—

I’ve seen how they assault peasant women;

they’ve been plundering churches, pillaging.

The Emperor is bound for Moscow, but when

he goes without God’s blessing, he will find

the road quite long. I’ve heard that he’s incurred

the Bishops’ wrath.” Here Maciek stopped and dined;

dipped bread in soup, leaving off his final word.

Pan Maciek’s words stung the ears of his host.

Young men grumbled. Compelled to intervene,

the Judge announced that joy was not all lost:

the third betrothed pair at the door was seen.

It was the Notary. And yet he had

to introduce himself, unrecognized,

since in his Polish clothes he wasn’t clad.

Telimena, his wife-to-be, legalized

her wish that he renounce his dear Kontusz,

placing a clause in the marriage contract

to make him change his wardrobe in a rush.

And so, the Notary now wore, in fact,

a French frockcoat. Yet it was clear to all

that this outfit deprived him of his soul.

He strode as though he was afraid he’d fall,

rigid as though he’d prepared for this role

by swallowing his walking stick. He dared

not glance about; he held his composure,

yet all could see just how this bridegroom fared;

a close examination shows his torture.

He doesn’t know to bow, or where to place

his hands—this man, once so fond of gesture.

He tucks his hands into an empty space,

feeling for his sash—no longer worn—

only to stroke his stomach. Noticing

his grave mistake, he face begins to turn

crimson; and then, to a distinct hissing

of whispers, he hides them in his pockets,

advancing through a dense thicket of jeers.

the thought of this frock fills him with regrets

and shame, as though disgraced among his peers.

Spotting Maciek, this quickly turned to fears.

The Notary and Maciek had been friends;

tet Maciek casts a glance so furious,

the Notary turns pale and soon defends

himself, by buttoning up his curious

frockcoat, thinking Maciek might plunder it

with his glance. But Maciek only yells out twice:

“You idiot!” And too disgusted to sit

any longer, too shocked to give advice,

he rose, gave no farewell, and quickly went,

mounting his horse, back to his settlement.

But soon the Notary’s fair beloved,

Telimena, displayed her ever radiant

beauty; everything from her head to toe proved

she knew the latest styles for this event.

The manner of her gown and her coiffure

a pen could not describe; perhaps a brush

could paint the tulle, the muslin, the cashmere,

the lace, the pearls and precious stones, the blush

upon her cheeks, the look within her eyes…

The Count was astonished to recognize

his former love. He rose from the table,

searching for his sword. “It can’t be you!”

He cried. “Here I am, yet you are still able

to clasp another’s hand? How could you do

this thing? Unfaithful creature! Fickle soul!

You’d hide your face beneath the earth in shame;

have you forgot your vows? A deed so foul!

Why have I worn your ribbons—for a game?

Woe to the rival who’s caused this affront.

Over my dead body he’ll have to walk

to reach the altar—to pay for this stunt.”

The guests rose up amid increasing talk;

the Notary was horrified at first.

As the Chamberlain rushed to reconcile

the rivals, Telimena, fearing the worst,

took the Count aside. In her own style,

she slowly whispered: “I am still not married

to the Notary; if you’re truly hurt,

tell me right away, nothing’s been agreed.

But tell me soon, you must be brief or curt—

do you love me, or have your feelings changed?

Are you prepared to wed this very day?

I’ll cancel all the plans that I’ve arranged;

I’ll leave the Notary. What do you say?

To this the Count replied, “Oh, woman, strange,

incomprehensible, and once poetic;

you now appear prosaic; what great change

has made you seek a marriage that would stick

chains around your hands instead of souls?

Please believe me, there are offers of love,

and some of them are made without avowals;

there are ties without obligations of

marriage. For when two hears can burn apart,

just like the stars they can communicate.

Who knows, the earth reveals his heart,

circling the sun, pursuing the moon, his mate;

he may gaze upon her, but not come near.”

“Enough of this; I’m not some heavenly sphere.”

She said. “But by the grace of God, female.

I know the rest; it’s all nonsense to me.

Now I warn you, if from your word, I fail

to marry, if you disrupt this ceremony,

God is my witness, I will attack you

with my sharp nails.”

“I won’t” the Count replied,

“disturb your happiness, that would not do.”

With sad eyes and contempt, he turned aside,

trying to punish his unfaithful love,

and with interplanetary fire, tried

another young lady’s spirit to move.

The Seneschal, eager to restore peace,

brought up once more his much beloved story—

the wild boar amid the Nalibok trees,

when Prince Rejtan sought to reduce the glory

of Prince de Nassau. But no one really cares;

they finish off their ices, then proceed

to leave the castle, eager for fresh air.

The peasants were passing pitchers of mead

outside; their food hand long since disappeared.

Musicians’ instruments were set in tune.

All were anxious to dance, yet two whispered

off to the side—they would not break off soon.

Tadeusz spoke: “Zosia, , we must discuss

this matter that has occupied my mind.

my Uncle knows; he leaves it up to us.

According to law, the village behind

the castle is part of my inheritance.

And yet, as my wife, a considerable

part falls to you; let’s leave nothing to chance;

now that we have Poland, we are able

to profit much from this fortunate change;

but what will the peasants gain from our luck?

Simply another master they’ll exchange.

They were governed with kindness, never struck,

but what will happen to them when I’m gone?

I am a soldier; we are both mortal;

I am human too, and I fear my own

caprices; I’d feel more secure if I could tell

the authorities that the peasants’ fate

will fall under protection of the law..

We’re free; why not let them enjoy our state?

We’ll give them land, and not just hay and straw—

the land where they were born, that they’ve acquired

through bloody toil, the work that makes us rich.

But let me warn you, we will be required

to live more modestly, to make a switch,

if we indeed give our peasants the land;

our income will decrease. Now I was raised

in modest circumstance; nothing grand

and extravagant would ever be praised.

Yet you, Zosia, of higher birth; you spent

your youth in Petersburg; what kind of life

could you expect within a place so distant

from society? You’d be a farmer’s wife!”

Zosia replied, “I don’t have the authority;

as a woman—it clearly rests with you.

I am too young, but know that I’ll agree,

wholeheartedly, whatever you decide to do.

If freeing the peasants makes us more poor,

then you, Tadeusz, will become more dear.

My birth means nothing to me any more;

I was orphaned, and the terrible fear

that I’d remain, Soplicas have dispelled—

in your home, as a daughter, I have dwelled.”

“I don’t dread country life; if long ago

I lived in the city, it’s long forgotten.

To be with hens that cluck, roosters that crow,

that’s sure to give me more pleasure than ten

St. Petersburgs. If I have sometimes yearned

for balls and gatherings, well that was childish;

that life would bore me now; I learned

last year in Vilno, when all winter I would wish

to be back home, living the life for which

I was born. And I don’t dread the labor;

I’m young, healthy; for me it’s not a switch.

I wear a ring of keys; I know which door

each fits—you’ll see, I can manage the household.”

No sooner had Zosia clearly extolled

the virtues of being a farmer’s wife,

than Gervazy approached, amazed and glum:

“I’ve heard the Judge speak of freedom and life,

but I can’t comprehend where this comes from.

what has liberty to do with peasants?

It sounds to me just like some German notion.

Now I trace origins back to events

in paradise: all true men of devotion

agree—we’re all descendents of Adam.

But I have heard that peasants stem from Ham,

Jews from Japhet. We nobles come from Shem,

and it is our job to watch over them.

But now the parish priest is teaching us

that this was true according to old law;

that all has changes, of course, it’s obvious—

that though Lord Jesus was born in the straw,

surrounded by Jews in a peasant’s barn,

he, who descended from kings, had this plan,

that all men, yes, even those poorly born,

would be equal to the wealthiest man.

That is the way it is, so it must be,

especially since I’ve heard that you’ve agreed,

my Lady, and you have authority.

But if, indeed, the peasants will be freed,

I warn you, if this liberty lacks

meaning, if it’s nothing but an empty word…

For the Muscovites imposed such a tax

when the late Pan Karp’s serf-freeing occurred,

the peasants starved, having been taxed threefold!

So this is my advice; you must follow

the old custom and have them ennobled;

a coat of arms, a crest, you must bestow.

Zosia should give the half-goat to her fold;

Tadeusz should give the star and the crescent.

If this is done, I will accept reforms,

the full equality of each peasant

bearing, for all to see, a coat of arms.”

“But you, Tadeusz, made your wife upset.

The loss of land will make you impoverished.

God forbid, a Lord’s grand-daughter won’t get

calluses, not at least until I’ve perished.

I have a plan; the castle has a chest

in which the Horeszko table service

is kept, along with signet rings, the best

pearl necklaces, rich plumes, marvelous

cutlasses, caparsions—treasures

that the Pantler buried deep in the ground,

that I’ve protected from all plunderers.

I’ve guarded them and kept them safe and sound

from Muscovites and you, dear Soplicas.

I also own a good-sized pouch that’s filled

with my own thalers; and this small amount

was saved through years of service, from gifts willed

to me. I thought I’d use my golden coin

to mend the castle walls, but now it seems

the farm will need these pennies. I will join

you, Pan Soplica, and what Zosia deems

fit for me—that I’ll happily accept.

I’ll rock to sleep a third generation

of Horeszkos; your child will be adept

with my Penknife, if that child is a son.

A son, I’m sure, for when the land is torn

by war, new sons are always being born.”

Gervazy barely spoke his final word,

when Protazy walked up, quite dignified.

He bowed, then with a gesture self-assured,

withdrew from his Kontusz’s inside

pocket, a long panegyric, almost

two and a half sheets long, in rhyme.

A younger, non-commissioned officer composed

the poem—he had been famous at one time

for all the odes he wrote. Later he donned

the uniform, unable to retreat

from the habit of versifying on demand.

The first three hundred lines were quite a treat:

Thou art the one who has now sent

The exquisite bliss or torment.

When your sweet glance falls on Bellon,

Swords break, as though fell on.

This day cruel Mars yields to Hymen;

The hissing viper to his fen

Crawls back, soothed by your gentle palm;

The Hydra of Discourse is calm….

But just in time! There was lively applause;

Tadeusz and Zosia began to clap,

wishing he’d halt before the next clause.

This noise awoke the Judge from his short nap,

and at the parish priest’s instigation,

he read Tadeusz’ bold proclamation.

Barely had the peasants heard the news,

when they surrounded the young lord and fell

to their lady’s feet, where they refuse

to rise until they shout: “May you be well!”

In tears. Tadeusz cried: “Free citizens,

equals, fellow Poles!” And Dombrowski cried:

“to the common folk and to our defense!”

The peasants then repeated from the side:

“Long live our leaders and our new free choice!”

A thousand voices thundered in one voice.

Only Buchman stood apart from the joy;

he praised the plan but wished to modify,

appoint a commission that would employ

legal advisors…and to codify…

But Buchman’s point was met with levity;

it could not be applied with brevity.

Out in the yard, the officers now stood

beside ladies, in pairs, while village men

lined up next to theirs. No longer could

they wait: “Polonaise!” rang in unison;

the military band assumed its place .

But then the Judge addressed the General:

“I ask you, sir, today might we replace

this orchestra? Today we must recall

the ancient custom of our family

to celebrate just like a village ball.

The cymbal player stands, his hands yet free;

the fiddler has already dropped his jaw;

the bagpiper has bowed, he’d like instructions.

If we send them away, then some unwritten law

will be broken, and everyone will be

disappointed. The peasants only dance

to their own music; so let them feel free

to play—for everyone will have a chance

for a good time. Then your orchestra can

play later. He signaled and they began.

The fiddler rolled his sleeves up carefully;

he squeezed the fingerboard, rested the bridge

beneath his chin, and sent his bow quickly

across the strings--a race horse had no edge

on him. The bagpiper blew, inflating

his sack, and then began to flap his arm

as if it were a wing anticipating

flight—his puffed-out cheeks had all the charm

of the moon-faced children of Boreas.

A cymbalon player was all they lacked.

Of all the cymbalom players, one was

far superior—none had the impact

of Jankiel, who put all others to shame.

(Janiel had hid, God knows where, all winter;

but when the Generals appeared, he came.)

About his skill there was no dissenter;

he was the master and he was unequaled.

And so they begged old Jankiel to take part;

they pointed to the instrument, appealed

to his good sense, complimenting his art.

The Jew declined; he claimed his hands were stiff,

out of practice, and that he’d be embarrassed

to play in such a state. He felt that if

he did, the gentlemen would fail to be impressed,

three times he bowed and tried to back away;

but Zosia saw this modest ploy and ran

to him, bringing the sticks he used to play.

She smiled and curtsied in front of the old man,

and stroked his long gray beard: “Jankiel, please stay,

you promised me you’d play my wedding day.”

Jankiel was fond of Zosia, so he shook

his beard to show that he would not refuse;

then to the center of the crowd they took

a stool and placed the cymbalom he’d use

across his knees. He waits for the command,

meditative, like an old veteran,

called back to active duty for his land.

His grandsons lift, although they barely can,

a heavy sword, which once brought him good luck;

two pupils kneel beside the instrument

and tune the strings, testing as they pluck.

Jankiel half-shuts his eyes, becomes silent,

holding the hammers in the air a moment.

He lowers them—a triumphant measure

rings out; until he strikes the strings more briskly,

more like torrential rain than the pleasure

of good music. The crowd stares uneasily;

yet this is just a test; the storm grows soft;

Jankiel breaks off, holding the sticks aloft.

He played again; the think strings vibrated,

as though struck by the wings of a housefly,

so lightly that it seemed the sound abated.

The master turned his gaze up to the sky,

as though he was expecting inspiration,

surveyed his instrument, sure of his sill,

raised up his hands after a respiration,

then dripped them both at once—strings, once still,

resounded wildly when the hammers pounded;

listeners were shocked, and yes, astounded.

It seemed a Turkish Janissary band

marched up with clanging cymbals, bells, and drums,

inciting soldiers to martial command.

The Polonaise of the Third of May comes

breathing with joy upon the rippling strings.

Girls are eager to dance, boys take their place,

though some old men are thinking other things—

recalling the time before the disgrace,

those joyous years after the Third of May

Constitution, when they all celebrated

(all Senators and Deputies) all day

and night, when whole nation was elated.

They gave a rousing welcome to the King:

“Vivat!” they cried, “the Diet and the nation!”

and these Vivats they heard in Jankiel’s playing.

The music underwent a transformation:

the tones intensified, new rhythms shaped;

the master introduced a new false chord,

just like a hissing snake, or metal scraped

on glass, which sent a chill through the assured

listeners. They felt something sinister

intrude upon their joy, and so wondered

if the instrument went out of tune, or

if the master, once so skilled, had blundered.

But no, he struck these strings so traitorous,

disturbed the melody—this was his aim:

to split the chords with brash inglorious

tones, confederated to hurt and main

the harmony. At once the Warden knew

what Jankiel’s music meant. He hid his face

and cried: “I know that voice that rings untrue--

betrayed at Targowica, that disgrace!”

Then suddenly the strings snapped with a hiss;

the hammers rushed to the top of the scale;

and in new rhythms, reintroduced bliss,

until bass notes struck up another tale.

One could hear a thousand noises sweeping

across the strings—soldiers march off to war,

attack and fire; groaning children, weeping

mothers—the master evokes the horror

of war so well, the village girls shiver,

recalling the grief of the massacre

at Praga by the Vistula River,

the tale they’ve heard in song. But they are glad

when all the strings ring forth with joyous sound,

as if the master meant to choke these sad

outcries, beating them into the background.

No sooner had the listeners relaxed,

than once again the clanging strings grew calm;

a few strings buzzed, their tautness barely taxed

by lightly tapping sticks in Jankiel’s palm.

It seemed a fly or two tried to break free

from a spider’s web; and perhaps they did…

More strings joined in to build a harmony,

uniting legions of chords in splendid

new memories full of grief and sorrow.

They heard the wandering soldier’s song,

Through forest and wood we dutifully go…

(Half-dead from woe, hunger, he moves along,

to fall by the feet of his faithful steed,

the horse that will dig his grave with its leg.)

and yet, for more of this old song, they plead;

the soldiers recognize their lives and beg

to hear again, recalling times with dread

when they too sang—from their homes departing,

marching into the world, all those not dead

humming the tune, their arms and clothing carting,

cross land, sea, burning sand, and crippling frost.

And when in foreign lands they often camped,

hearing this song stirred them. All was not lost.

they bowed their heads, recalling how they tramped.

Then Jankiel strove to elevate the mood;

something unheard rang out; he calmly glanced,

surveyed the strings, and with both hands imbued

the music with such art, the hammers danced.

The strings resounded like a large brass band,

and from the trumpets wafted to the sky,

the march of triumph known to all—Poland

Has Not Yet Perished. This was followed by

March, March Dombrowski, as everyone cheered,

for Dombrowski himself already had appeared.

It seemed that even Jankiel was amazed

by his own playing; he dropped he hammers,

lifting his arm. When they were fully raised,

his fox-skin hat fell onto his shoulders;

he blushed; his gaze revealed his very soul,

the flush of youth revealed inside his stare.

At last the old man looked at General

Dombrowski, before he covered up his eyes

to hide his gushing tears. “We’ve had to wait

for many years with mournful wails and sighs

for your arrival. You’re almost as late

in coming to save us as the Messiah

is to us Jews. Long ago, wandering bards

prophesied throughout Lithuania;

heaven proclaimed it when comets flew towards

our land—so live, wage war….The old Jew wept

as he spoke, for just like a Pole he loved

his native land. To show his deep respect,

General Dombrowski, who was truly moved,

held out his hand to be kissed by the Jew.

Jankiel removed his cap and bowed down too.

It is time to begin the Polonaise:

the Chamberlain steps up and tosses back

his kontusz sleeves; he twirls and proudly displays

his mustache, choosing Zosia from the pack.

He bows, inviting her to lead the dance

with him; others line up in pairs behind;

after his signal, all couples advance.

Red boots glitter, sabers, lovingly shined,

and rich brocaded belts gleam in the sun.

The leader slowly treads, without effort,

but from each step and each deliberate motion,

his every thought and feeling they report;

right here he steps, as though he wants to ask

his partner a question; he leans his head

to whisper in her ear; she tries to mask

her face, to bashful to follow his lead.

He doffs his cap, and bows once more—she deigns

to glance at him, keeping her stubborn silence.

He slows the pace to see if she complains,

and smiles when she finally returns his glance.

Then, more quickly, sizing up his rivals,

he pulls his heron-flumed cap over his brow

and shakes it till it’s cocked just right and twirls

his mustaches again, satisfied for now,

the envy of all. All the couples follow

right in his tracks, though he’d like to escape

with his lady, and so he halts the flow,

raising his arms to change the dance’s shape.

No sooner does each pair approach, than he

humbly invites couples to pass him by—

while he withdraws somewhat meditatively.

And so the course is changed; but they reply

to his elusive move; couples pursue

insistently, and from all sides they snake

around. But then, to show his wrath is true,

the hilt of his sword he forcefully takes,

as if to say, I do not care for you

who envy me. His eyes are full of challenge,

advancing straight into the dancing throng;

they dare not block his path and rearrange

themselves, to fall in line before too long.

Exclamations chime from every side.

These are, perhaps, the last looks that they’ll get,

their final chance to view this dignified

dance, led in such a way—they won’t forget.

Couples followed, moving with pomp and joy;

the circle unraveled, then contracted—

a giant snake in some serpentine ploy.

The dappled folds and colors distracted;

the different uniforms, ladies and gents,

soldiers, glittering like the slithering scales,

so that the setting sun gilds these garments,

so bright above the turf and the fence rails.

Although the dance is spirited and quick,

Corporal Dobrzynski, still known as the Sack,

does not dance and does not hear the music;

he stands aside, ringing his hands in back,

recalling when he was Zosia’s suitor:

flowers gathered, baskets braided, birds’ nests

raided, earrings carved—how he had pursued her!

Ungrateful girl—he’d answer her requests;

such wasted gifts. And though she always fled

from him, although his father had forbidden,

he still went to gaze at her from the shed;

how many times within the hemp he’s hidden,

to watch her in the garden pluck out weeds,

pick cucumbers, or feed her poultry grain.

Ungrateful girl—not to care for his deeds!

He dropped his head, thinking of her disdain,

and whistled a Mazurka. Then he jammed

his cap over his ears and left the scene.

By the cannon which had been left unmanned,

picking some cards and hoping for a queen,

he joined some old campaigners sitting down.

He drank with them, hoping to lose the past,

and if not to sweeten his sorrow, then to drown

it, for Dobrzynski’s heart was constant and steadfast.

Zosia flutters about, and though she leads

the dance, she barely can be seen; the yard

is vast—she blends in with the plants and weeds.

Her dress is green; she has yet to discard

her wreath, garland, and flowers. And as she spins,

she disappears from sight, although she guides

the dance, showing where each new figure begins,

an angel directing the planetary tides.

Her place is revealed by the dancers’ eyes

and outstretched arms, as they gather around her.

In vain her partner, the Chamberlain, tries

to stay by her side, though she must defer

to one of his rivals; they’ve lost their place

as head couple; now they must quickly yield

to another pair, setting a new pace.

General Dombrowski now heads the field,

but not for long; another pair cuts in.

The Chamberlain, devoid of hope, walks off;

Zosia, wearied by this navigation,

meets Tadesusz, brushing against his cuff.

She stays with him to finish out the phrase

and ends the dance. To prove she is finished,

she carries out more wine on large round trays.

The evening warm and still, the sun diminished;

across the sky, here and there, clouds are strewn,

deep blue above but rosy in the west;

and these small clouds portend the best of fortune

and fine weather. A flock of sheep at rest,

some resemble; others look like wild ducks

in formation. In the west are curtains,

many folds of gauze, bright pleats and tucks,

pearly at the top, gilded where that wanes,

and purple in between. The sun still glows,

then slowly pales and grays; it cannot keep

its fire, and draws some clouds about it, bows

its head, and with one breath, it falls asleep.

The nobles continue to drink and toast:

“Vivat Napoleon, the Generals!

Vivat Tadeusz, Zosia, and their host,

the Judge. Vivat the married couples!”

They drank, praising themselves who attended,

those invited who couldn’t come, and all

their friends. And long before the night ended

they toasted the dead, sacred to recall.

And I was there among the guests and ate

their food and drank their vodka, wine, and mead;

all that I heard and saw about their fate

I’ve written in this book for you to read.

17 σχόλια:

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